Searching for a light: Syrian children struggle with trauma

As the war in Syria pushes into its seventh year, Syrian children are grappling with a growing mental health crisis as poor funding leaves trauma-related issues often unaddressed.

Syrian Orphans in Gaziantep
Al Sham Association in Gaziantep, Turkey, provides, shelter, educational and recreational activities to orphans and children who have lost family members [Natasha Ghoneim/Al Jazeera]

From the moment 10-year-old Noor walked into the room, the heaviness of her heartache engulfed all of us. Even when she smiles, her eyes show a sadness that seems endless. There’s a good reason for that.

A year ago, she watched fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group kill her father.

Noor, along with her mother and two sisters, thought that they too would be killed and that the eldest sister would be kidnapped and taken as a kind of “prize” by the fighters.

“After my father was slaughtered, we couldn’t stay in Syria. We were forced to leave and come to Turkey,” says Noor.

We were warned not to ask Noor about the family’s horrific encounter with ISIL, as recalling the memory for anyone, let alone a child, is traumatic. 

ISIL kidnapped Noor and her family in Aleppo last year, locking them in a room before ISIL kidnapped Noor and her family in Aleppo last year, locking them in a room before “slaughtering” the young girl’s father in front of her [Natasha Ghoneim/Al Jazeera]

Noor has nightmares and is depressed. Although she and her family are safely out of the wartorn Aleppo, the memories of the daily fear of dying linger.

“We thought that the airplanes would bomb our homes. We were hiding under the stairs. We didn’t leave the house. Me and my sister would make a tent with the pillows.”

Sadly, Noor is one of millions of Syrian children who have been surrounded by death and violence and have faced the deprivation and fear that result from being forced to flee their homes and country.

This week, Save the Children released a report warning that Syrian children are grappling with a growing mental health crisis. The global charity provides mental health and psychosocial support to children living in Syria, as well as countries that host Syrian refugee populations.

“Children are soiling themselves when they hear a loud noise. They are terrified to play outside, afraid to go to school even though they are worried their futures will be ruined without an education. This is a tragedy that must be stopped,” says CEO Kevin Watkins.

We met Noor at the Al Sham Association in Gaziantep, Turkey. The association provides shelter, educational and recreational programs to orphans who lost their fathers. They also facilitate job training for the mothers.

The staff at Al Sham say that 40 percent of the children they work with – including Noor – are in desperate need of long-term, extensive mental health treatment. It is treatment the association has neither the funds nor the expertise to provide.

“We don’t have a permanent program with psychologists. They do two sessions… maximum three. We haven’t found doctors with the expertise to help the orphans. So, we depend on ourselves and make training courses with the mothers to help them deal with their children,” says Ekhlas, a staff member.

Forty percent of the children the Al Sham Association treats are in need of long-term mental health treatment Gaziantep [natasha Ghoneim/Al Jazeera]Forty percent of the children the Al Sham Association treats are in need of long-term mental health treatment Gaziantep [natasha Ghoneim/Al Jazeera]

And without proper funding, children like Noor will continue to suffer. The staff is worried about her. They say her mother is also grappling with the trauma of war, which is likely to make it even harder for Noor to get the support she needs at home.

Noor told us how sad she is to be away from her country and her family and friends. But she’s luckier than those left behind. Inside Syria, the healthcare system has collapsed. Doctors and nurses have fled the country, making it even more difficult for children to access basic healthcare, let alone mental health services.

“We are failing children inside Syria, some of whom are being left to cope with harrowing experiences – from witnessing their parents killed in front of them to the horrors of life under siege – without proper support,” says Save the Children’s Dr. Marcia Brophy.

“We risk condemning a generation of children to a lifetime of mental and physical health problems – we need to ensure that children who have already lost six years of their lives to war don’t have to lose their whole future as well.”

Organizations assisting Syrians are in desperate need of funds. But with the need so great for basics such as food and shelter, mental health care for children like Noor is not likely to be a priority.

Noor means light in Arabic. One hopes that somehow, she’ll get the treatment she so desperately needs and that one day a lightness of spirit, that flash of joy we caught glimpses of when she remembered her father, will be what one notices when she enters the room.

Source: Al Jazeera